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How the Chiefs should continue to build at defensive end

Kansas City made a big improvement at the position in 2022. What should they do next?

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

In 2020 and 2021, the Kansas City Chiefs had one of the NFL’s least productive defensive lines, ranking 19th in total sacks during 2020 (with 32) and 29th in 2021 (31).

That started with the team’s defensive ends. Five played significant snaps in 2020, generating just 14.5 sacks between them. In 2021, four players shared just 10 sacks. The pressure numbers were also alarming. According to Pro Football Focus, the five defensive ends generated only 130 pressures in 2020, while the four collected 152 in 2021.

So in 2022, Kansas City reworked Frank Clark’s contract, drafted George Karlaftis and signed veteran defensive end Carlos Dunlap to a one-year deal. Those moves worked out. The Chiefs finished the season ranked second in sacks (55). The team’s four main defensive ends — Clark, Dunlap, Karlaftis and Mike Danna — finished with 20 sacks and 174 pressures between them.

Rather than making a big splash, the Chiefs did this by succeeding on the margins. A late first-round pick, Karlaftis came on strong to rank second among rookies in both pressures and sacks. Dunlap helped by producing pass-rushing wins around the corner. Danna also had a career season in both sacks and pressures.

Overall, the group produced enough that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo didn’t feel the need to blitz as often. The Chiefs ranked 14th in blitz rate at 24.2%, which was the lowest since Spagnuolo arrived in 2019.

But let’s see how the team could do even better in 2023.

Current players

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City has five defensive ends under contract: Karlaftis, Clark, Danna, Joshua Kaindoh and Malik Herring. Clark’s situation, however, is a little unusual. His $30.2 million cap hit (and $21 million in cap savings with his release) make it very unlikely he’ll play under that deal. So essentially, the group’s two long-term veterans from 2022 — Dunlap and Clark — are both free agents.

Dunlap will be 34 this season. Last season, his deal counted $3 million against the cap — which he easily outperformed. Since he wasn’t signed until July, it’s a safe bet he won’t be very expensive to re-sign — and given his 2022 play, the Chiefs should consider doing just that.

Clark will be 30 in June. He has a history of nagging stomach illnesses that have sometimes limited his production. Still, 2022 was arguably his most consistent season in Kansas City, staying healthy enough to turn in another strong postseason run. Clark has also spoken about his relationship with head coach Andy Reid — and it is apparent that he is respected across the organization. The Chiefs could easily decide to do a restructure similar to last year that would lower Clark’s cap hit to around $12-15 million, giving the team salary-cap room while keeping a productive leader on the roster.

Free agents

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Unfortunately, this season doesn’t have a strong crop of free-agent defensive ends — and if Kansas City re-signs both Clark and Dunlap, bringing in another veteran could cause a logjam at the position. But if one is allowed to walk, there are some free-agent candidates — including Arden Key, Marcus Davenport, Rasheem Green, Shaq Lawson, Jordan Willis and Charles Omenihu.

None of these players are standout options, but they fit the general size requirements that Spagnuolo likes in his defensive ends. Key visited the Chiefs last offseason — and would give the Kansas City an inside-outside option that only Danna currently provides. As a former first-round selection, Davenport feels like a typical Brett Veach acquisition — one who also has the length and power that Spagnuolo prefers.

Draft prospects

NCAA Football: Big 12 Football Championship-Texas Christian at Kansas State Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

You might already know about Kansas State defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah. So far, he’s been my favorite prospect. Just 21 years old, he’s had 82 pressures and 20 sacks over the last two seasons. The Wildcats play with just three defensive linemen, so Anudike-Uzomah generally plays as a 4i or 5-technique — that is, tight to the tackle’s shoulders. While it’s very hard to be productive from that alignment, Anudike-Uzomah has consistently dominated from there.

What stands out on tape is his torque and power. While Anudike-Uzomah might not be the most explosive player (or have the most length), his combination of torque, power and balance allows him to win as a bull rusher, around the corner or with inside moves. He can take control of offensive tackles, using his grip strength to collapse pockets. He has enough balance to rotate his leverage so he can get inside positioning against a tackle.

He’s also a great run defender, leveraging his strength and density to be productive.

I’m excited to see what Anudike-Uzomah does at the Combine — but on tape, he fits Kansas City’s prototype for defensive ends. He would be a great pick with the 31st selection of the draft.

But there will be plenty of other options available at 31 — including Lukas Van Ness (Iowa), Myles Murphy (Clemson), B.J. Ojulari (LSU), Nolan Smith (Georgia), Zach Harrison (Ohio State), Derick Hall (Auburn) and Keion White (Georgia Tech).

All of these will be players to watch as the draft approaches.

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